Artillery: Crossing a Ford

“Battery of Light Artillery en Route” by William T. Trego (1882) Courtesy of the Michener Art Museum

Walt Whitman wrote a short, evocative poem called “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” that has stayed with me for many years:

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,

They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark
to the musical clank,

Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to

Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture,
the negligent rest on the saddles,

Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the

Scarlet and blue and snowy white,

The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

Chris Mackowski has written here about one of his “moments” during his career as a historian and when I shared one of mine he suggested I share it with ECW readers as well.

It was a reenacting moment, but I was alone, walking across a large field that was cut by a small stream. I believe it was the 125th Gettysburg. The air was softly breezy, and the buzz of insects was a constant undercurrent to the louder crunch my boots made as I walked through the grass.

I heard male voices in the distance, shouting commands, so I looked up. A half-battery of two guns was being drawn across the field by brown horses. The men rode other horses and wore blue and red uniforms. Indeed, the guidon flags fluttered gaily in the very slight wind, identifying the individual company. I don’t remember which one it was.

The commands were those given in the 1860s, but not so different from what is used now: gee, haw, words of encouragement to the animals, words to each other to effectively get the guns across the small waterway in front of them. I beheld the silvery creek, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink. I beheld the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles.

I heard–and this was the best part–the voices shouting. I heard the rub of wood on wood, and the creaking leather harnesses that clinked their brass bosses and swivels against each other. A whip cracked a couple of times, and one man reached down from his saddle to grab the reins of the complicated harness and help the horse along. The two teams of horses, fairly well-matched bays with white on their foreheads, huffed and snorted–making horse noises that were echoed by the mismatched mounts being ridden individually.

The cannons themselves were bright brass. They were reflective in the early afternoon and threw back flashes of light almost as bright as the sun overhead. Buttons, rings in the harness, the splashing water under the hooves and wheels of the caissons–all bright sparkle. And I couldn’t help but wonder just when was the last time this very field had heard those commands? When had it last cushioned the feet of artillery horses or artillery riders? When had the wind last pushed along the sounds of large guns drawn across an unnamed creek on their way to be fired in battle? Those sounds of the past, those flashes of light, the music of the leather and the wood . . . a Walt Whitman moment, certainly.


Live images courtesy of the California Historical Artillery Association

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